Serious O'Donnell avoids social issues in Delaware clash

By Katie Connolly
BBC News, Delaware

Image caption,
The mood outside the debate hall was as heated as inside

The University of Delaware isn't exactly known for being a hotbed of political activism.

But when it played host to a debate between the candidates for Vice-President Biden's former Senate seat on Wednesday night, UDel became a telling microcosm of America's political landscape.

Outside the debate hall, supporters and protesters formed a colourful tableau.

One woman waved a sign for Democratic candidate Chris Coons, dressed in a full witch costume - a reference to Republican Christine O'Donnell's remark in the 1990s that she had "dabbled" in witchcraft at college.

Witchcraft aside, Ms O'Donnell's socially conservative statements sparked a mini-culture war at UDel.

The largest and most vocal group in the quad didn't hold signs for either candidate. They waved home-made placards calling for women's rights, pro-choice and gay marriage.

"Just say 'No' to Christine O!" they shouted in unison.

Media caption,
Christine O'Donnell tries to get away from her earlier comments on witchcraft

One sign carried a deflated-sounding liberal message about gay and women's rights: "I can't believe we still have to protest for this..."

Ms O'Donnell's supporters however - a smaller, less vocal tribe - stood to the side, holding professionally-made signs and chanting for jobs and lower taxes.

They didn't engage much with their earnest, passionate neighbours, who far outnumbered them. Rather, they stayed focused on their fiscally conservative agenda.

"We have a lot bigger concerns right now than masturbation and sex before marriage," Brendan Floyd, an O'Donnell supporter and UDel student, told the BBC.

"We have a large budget deficit that's getting bigger and as a college student, I'm worried that I'm going to have to pay for it."

Numerous conservative students who spoke to the BBC echoed these views. They unanimously supported Ms O'Donnell for her promises to lower taxes and cut government spending.

"She has expressed conservative social views that most Republicans support, but those are not the dominant issues. This is much more about the economy," said Kimberley Meyer, a second year UDel student.

It's an interesting departure from the early years of the Bush administration, when US conservatives were eager to engage on social issues.

Their focus is now squarely on the economy and they appear determined not to be drawn into divisive debates with their socially liberal opponents.


Image caption,
Ms O'Donnell labelled Mr Coons a Marxist

Inside the debate hall, Ms O'Donnell reflected the mood of her supporters in the quad, channelling her feisty enthusiasm into her answers on the economy.

She entered the debate as an underdog. After weeks of media frenzy over her comments on masturbation and witchcraft, she seized the opportunity to look calm and serious, and criticise her opponent's record.

Ms O'Donnell portrayed herself as an average citizen with financial struggles and a concern for the economy.

But she stumbled repeatedly over questions on foreign policy and the law, and appeared uncomfortable when quizzed on social values.

Chris Coons also carried a serious demeanour. He was careful to look like a student of policy - reeling off details of government programmes, and projecting an air of competence.

To prepare for the debate, Mr Coons watched Vice President Biden's 2008 match-up against Sarah Palin.

Taking a leaf from the Biden book he resisted criticising the likable Ms O'Donnell too heavily. Doing so would have made him look like a bully.

But occasionally he couldn't help himself, responding to some of her statements with an incredulous look.

Ms O'Donnell's sassy, everyday-girl appeal couldn't obscure the lack of detail in her responses.

Nor could it compensate for her dumbfounded silence when asked to name a recent Supreme Court ruling she disagreed with.

But that might not matter in this election. She successfully touched on the talking points that have proved to resonate so powerfully with conservatives - repeatedly referring to the constitution, railing against "Obamacare" and accusing Mr Coons of being a Marxist.

Some call this "dog-whistle politics" - these kind of references hit a pitch, and speak a language that supporters hear differently, and respond to more strongly, than other constituencies. Ms O'Donnell appears to have mastered the technique.

Important seat

Delaware is one of the smallest states in the US in both population and geography. But on Wednesday it loomed large, punching above its weight on the national political scene.

Both parties still hope to win here.

Even though Mr Coons is 19 points ahead of Ms O'Donnell in the latest polls, the Democratic party isn't acting as though it has got it in the bag.

President Obama and Mr Biden will campaign there on Friday, in an obvious nod to the importance of the seat.

"Unlike Republicans in their primaries, Democrats don't take races for granted," Deirdre Murphy, National Press Secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee told the BBC.

"Christine O'Donnell is an ultra-right-wing extremist who proves day after day she is out of step with Delaware values."

But the US electorate is in an unpredictable mood, and - even with all her controversies - Republicans, it seems, have not yet given up on Ms O'Donnell.

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